Design Insights to see the future — Nature’s part of the design process?

Arthur Grau
MassArt Innovation
Published in
8 min readApr 12, 2017


First of a three-part series to explore: insights, prototypes, and recommendations, related to 3rd spaces project for city of Boston.

Prototyping and final deliverables are here.

Designers see the future, specifically when surfacing insights. Seeing the future is a multi-step process for the designer, with the forming of insights from the body of research about midway. It’s hard. I pace around the room, stumble into a chair or onto a studio stool, gaze back at a wall of multi-colored notes and wonder what it means. I re-watch hours of video interviews, or scroll through pages of observations and notes looking for clues. Sometimes alone, or in conversation with my team, I am searching for an insight. This search is both my darkest and brightest hour during the design process. It seems that something bigger than me plays a role in discovery of an insight.

Most recently our team is working with the city of Boston answer the question, “How can we help people make use of — and create play in — public spaces?” The mayor’s office of New Urban Mechanics is “investigating and experimenting prototypes around Boston’s 3rd spaces.” Our team is tasked specifically with looking at permitting and the relationship between the city and organizers creating in public space.

Boston Mayor Walsh’s Office of New Urban Mechanics Image: Placemeter

We approach the process with many measurable and systematic methods we learn during our human centered design training. These uniform methods can guide us to: focus our challenge, conduct and document our research, and even expertly prototype our best ideas. But these dependable methods for me, fall apart or fall short when it comes to insights. According to Jon Campbell a good insight is, “not obvious, synthesized from more than a single data point, able to be traced to your research, provocative, and actionable.” ~Lecture, 3/14/17. A high quality solution, needs a provocative, actionable insight. Let’s consider the following approach to locate where the insight sits in the overall process.

  1. Define, frame, state (the challenge)
  2. Research, co-create, collect, gather (research)
  3. Apprehend, understand, focus (insights)
  4. Develop, create, ideate (prototypes)
  5. Test, share, evaluate (solutions)
  6. Repeat

Using this process, we define a problem and can conduct and organize research. (Steps 1,2) With the third spaces project, we used our problem statement (from the second paragraph above). This problem was distilled from dozens of possibilities we reviewed at the kickoff meeting with our client. We used our own words to guide our research plan and would work our way back to the more specific requests asked by the city.

Team Designer Chuyang Chen looking on at a public event

Briefly, the plan consisted of interviews, intercepts, and competitor and stakeholder secondary research. Here I will focus primarily on our use of interview and intercept to point to our insights. Though we combined findings from all research. We conducted several lengthy interviews with organizers and participants and many intercepts with passersby, and non event-goers.

According to the IDEO Idea Kit “Human centered design isn’t just about talking to a lot of people, it’s about talking to the right people.” I would add, it’s also about asking them the right questions. We were vigilant to ask the right people, what we thought were the right questions. With the third spaces project we intentionally started by not asking the city about their current process for facilitating events and more specifically, for permitting. We felt organizers and participants were the ‘right people’ to ask first. These were the people who would have interacted with the city process out of necessity and would have no investment in the status quo. We initially wanted to understand what jobs these organizers were getting done, before approaching the tactical operations of how they did it. We also investigated the process of event planning on our own, to arrive at a first hand experience that we felt would support or contradict what we would learn from our informants.

Here comes the darkest hour that I mention above

With some ready methods, we research (Steps 1,2). With a bit of creativity we ideate, we design prototypes. If given enough time, we test them and repeat. (Steps 4,5,&6) But there’s always that pivot at the center of the process. That part where we have to apprehend something we did not see before. The Insight (Step 3).

No matter how many times I approach the process, I always find that generating a high quality insight is for me, the most personal and emotional challenge of the design cycle. This may be because we look for the inconspicuous. We look for something that, once it’s been discovered, seems completely obvious. Design lore holds countless stories about the game-changing insight. Continuum discovered something with P&G resulting in a new approach to cleaning. Benrath Senior Center in Dusseldorf designed for their alzheimer patients, discovering how a fake bus stop could prevent wandering.

The insight discovery begins when we look at our inputs and move beyond what people think or even say. We move closer when we observe what people do or use. The real fertile ground is when we start to comprehend what people know, feel and dream. “It’s not what they make that matters as much as what they feel while they’re making it.” ~ Jen Briselli, Lecture, 3/14/17

John Cummings [CC BY-SA 4.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons

So now we have these hours of interviews, copious team notes, images, quotes, artifacts. Now what! This is why methods to surface insight can involve tons of moveable notes on a board that we place and re-place in different configurations. We recreate with every project, that classic picture — a wall full of notes with designers standing, arms crossed, wistfully looking on. What that picture doesn’t capture is that even if we get into our research subjects’ feelings and dreams, these are still only the terrior for the actual insight to grow from. We have methods of organizing observations, but a less clear path to deriving the understanding.

It may be that this difficult because it requires me to move away from ego and start to empathize with others, to be in their skins. It may also be that the perception of an insight happens only when I am making a new mental or emotional connection — drawing a comparison or contrast that has never been made by me before. These are my darkest hours, because it feels as if I am pushing against an immovable object, as I review, re-arrange and reflect. It is also difficult because it’s nature, not me that will eventually uncover the insight. Nature takes time.

Don’t get me wrong. There are methods. We use facts. We use data.

“Without the hard little bits of marble which are called ‘facts’ or ‘data’ one cannot compose a mosaic; what matters, however, are not so much the individual bits, but the successive patterns into which you arrange them, then break them up and rearrange them.” Arthur Koestler, The Act of Creation

We can move the highest level of observations and meaningful quotes and artifacts onto moveable, arrange-able formats that allow us to look at the information in new ways. We can talk it out. (Oh, and how we talk it out. If the walls of room 122 could absorb the verbal record of the work we do, there would be a trove of inspirations.) We can draw, sketch, roughly ideate. And we can simply watch and wait. “Inspiration is a totally fair place to get an insight”. ~Jon Campbell, Lecture, 3/21/2017. I can draw strength and inspiration from training in mindfulness, or sitting still. I would recommend the contemplative practice for every designer. This too can help. Just standing by and waiting.

Selection of notes from the project

For third spaces, we took an observations distillation and discussion method to arrive at insights. We reviewed all the raw material and organized it by theme. Then we distilled these themes into generalized observations. It may be useful to point out here that we continually struggled with each other on the team to prevent ourselves from deriving insights from our own experience. Though it is useful at times to recall an experience we may have had, we attempted to derive insights primarily from those things we learned about others.

This was not painless. It spanned several in-person and online meetings. It required us to backtrack and develop personas through who’s eyes we might look at each observation. And it required many iterations and organizations of the information. But eventually, nature came through, new connections were made and we discovered a few insights.

One insight we uncovered is that there seems to be a Vitamin X that people crave in their engagement with public spaces. The vitamin is different for everyone and may be a combination of many attributes. But we are beginning to map a matrix of vitamins that may or may not be used in our idea and prototyping phase. In our second client meeting, everyone kept returning to this insight, so we feel there may be some value to it.

Example process of research, observation and insight

We are looking forward to the ideation and prototyping part of the project. Next we will take a deeper dive into the city-side operations involved, but now do so through the lens of our personas and insights. We will be able to hold our continued research and iterations up against the measuring stick of these insights to have a consistent monitor of their applicability and promise. Each insight is based on real data, real quotes and real emotions that we can point back to through our observations and distilled notes.

Compelling design starts with a compelling challenge, quality research, and insightful observations. Design heroes both well known and lesser known, seem to arrive at methods and formulas for arriving at good human-centered design. We hope that through this and other projects we can hone and improve the process.

~Team ‘Sach’

Experience Design Lab II, (CC) 2017 @ Massachusetts College of Art & Design. Instructors, Jon Campbell & Benjamin Little. Team Chuyang Chen, Shailee Rindani, Arthur Grau.